May 12, 2020

earn college credit in high school

Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too? The fact is, you can earn college credit in high school by taking courses that also count towards your high school diploma. It’s a 2-for-1 deal. Sweet!

When you earn college credit in high school, it can save you boatloads of money and time once you head off to college. The cost of college tuition continues to rise year after year. So earning as many of college credits as you can before you graduate from high school can be a really smart move.

Want to know how to do it? We’ll show you 5 of the best ways to earn college credit in high school.

Check out our full guide to graduating from college debt-free.

1. Advanced Classes

Taking advanced classes can be a great way to save time and money when earning a college degree. However, these classes aren’t offered at all high schools. They’re also more challenging than high school level classes. So they may not be appropriate for students who are struggling to maintain or increase their GPA.

There are two different options for taking advanced classes in high school (if your school offers these classes):

  • Advanced Placement (AP) classes
  • International Baccalaureate (IB) classes

One of the big benefits of AP and IB classes is that they’re free to take if your high school offers them. To earn college credits from taking these classes, students must write an exam at the end of the school year that costs approximately $100.

Because AP and IB advanced classes are usually more challenging than entry-level college classes, college admission boards and scholarship committees are likely to see these completed courses in a more favorable light on an application as compared to dual enrollment classes.

2. Dual Enrollment Classes

Dual enrollment classes are another way to earn college credit in high school. One of the big benefits of dual enrollment classes is that they count for credit towards both your high school diploma and your college degree. Taking a dual enrollment class can save you a lot of time and money since it’s working double duty for you.

Dual enrollment programs are offered in a few different formats, depending on what a student is wanting to achieve, besides dual credit. Some programs require high school students to attend these classes at a local college. This could be great if you are wanting to “get the feel” of a local campus and what college life is like. The benefit of taking classes at a local campus is that these classes are likely to be accepted for credit if you decide to enroll in a program there after high school.

For students who are interested in learning what it’s like to do course work online, an online dual enrollment program would be a good opportunity to try this out.

Early College High School Programs (ECHS)

Early college high school (ECHS) programs are another great option if available in your area. Typically, these programs allow high school students to take more classes for dual credit. That can help save even more money on college tuition, textbooks, and time.

Classes in ECHS programs are usually smaller and help prepare students for college that are from lower-income backgrounds. Another amazing benefit is that students from ECHS programs complete an average of 21.6 college credits by the time they’re done high school as compared to just 2.8 credits completed by their peers. That’s a huge jumpstart on your college education!

3. Credit-by-Examination Programs

Credit-by examination programs allow you to earn college credit in high school by taking a “challenge exam,” These exams are meant to demonstrate your knowledge in a particular course of study. There are three different programs that offer these kinds of exams.

College-Level Examination Program (CLEP)

The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) offers 34 different CLEP exams students can write to earn college credit for introductory level college courses. Students are required to pay $89 to write a CLEP exam (and possibly a $25 admin fee by the test center). The accepted passing score on a CLEP exam to earn college credit for a course can vary and is usually posted on most college and university websites.

By passing a CLEP exam, students can earn three or more college credits that are recognized by over 2,900 colleges and universities.

DANTES Subject Standardization Test (DSST)

The DANTES Subject Standardization Test (DSST) was originally developed to help military members earn college credit. Prometric now administers these exams to anyone wanting to earn college credit. There are over 30 DSST exams that students can take to earn college credit.

How are the CLEP and DSST exams similar?

Both of these exams are multiple-choice exams that are written on a computer and both help students earn college credit. That’s a plus because it saves you money on tuition and textbooks.

How are the CLEP and DSST exams different?

  • The CLEP exam is written in over 90 minutes while the DSST exam is written over 2 hours.
  • CLEP exam credit is recognized at over 2,900 schools while DSST exam credit is recognized at over 1,900 schools.

Excelsior College Examinations (UExcel)

Excelsior College also offers a credit-by-examination program called UExcel that offers exams high school students can take to earn college credit for prior learning. Once enrolled for a UExcel exam “you’ll refer to a free exam content guide that outlines exactly what’s covered in the exam, where you can find learning materials, and how your test questions will be structured.” Talk about setting you up to succeed!

Before taking a UExcel exam, you should check with the college that you want to transfer your UExcel credits to to find out if they will accept exam credits for the program you want to enter and if so, how many credits you would be granted for passing the exam.

4. Summer College Programs

Summer college programs (also known as summer pre-college programs) are offered by many competitive colleges. They help high school students get a feel for what their programs and campus are like. And some programs may even allow students to take some classes.

However, not all summer college programs are equally recognized by college admissions committees. Be sure to do your homework to find out which ones will improve your chances of getting into your desired program.

Upward Bound

Upward Bound is an excellent federal summer program for high school students preparing for college. The program is designed for students from low-income families and families where neither parent has completed a bachelor’s degree. The program is also for high school students:

  • With disabilities
  • Who are not proficient in English
  • In foster care or who are “aging out” of foster care
  • From groups who have historically been under-represented in post-secondary education
  • Who are homeless or otherwise disconnected

Upward Bound programs are required to provide students with instruction in the subject areas of lab science, math, literature, composition, and foreign language to prepare them for college programs.

To qualify for an Upward Bound program, high school students must:

  • Have completed Grade 8
  • Be between the ages of 13 and 18
  • Come from a low-income family and/or be a first generation college student in their family
  • Be at higher risk of not being successful in college

If you meet these criteria, be sure to find out about Upward Bound programs in your area.

5. Technical Certification Programs

If you’re interested in pursuing a technical rather than academic career path, technical certification programs (also known as Tech Prep Education) can save you a lot of time and money after high school and help you start your career sooner. High school students are allowed to begin these programs in their junior year. And dual enrolled students can earn credit toward high school and college classes in a technical program.

An added bonus is that you may also have the opportunity for some hands-on experience in your technical field in these programs. That could help you make a more informed career choice before fully committing to a technical program. On top of that, students completing technical programs are often able to find jobs in these areas since there is a high demand for skilled workers in these fields.

These Tech Prep programs are two-year certificate or associate degree programs in areas such as:

  • Applied science
  • Agriculture
  • Business
  • Engineering technology
  • Health
  • Industrial, mechanical, or practical art
  • Trade

Tech Prep programs vary by state so be sure to find out what programs are available in your area.


High school can be one of the best times of your life and you want to enjoy it. However, you can also use this time to get a real head start on your career. And you could save yourself tens of thousands of dollars in college tuition and years of time by taking advantage of these ways to earn college credit in high school. It could definitely be worth your time (and money!) to check out!

Related: 50+ Easy Ways to Save Money in College

About the author 

Leona Werezak

Leona Werezak is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about personal finance and health & wellness. When she isn’t writing or wearing her nursing hat, she’s coming up with new business ideas or scoping out her next rental property.

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